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Downing Street has announced that the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, is to succeed the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when the latter steps down at the end of this year.
“To be nominated to this post is both astonishing and exciting,” said Bishop Welby. “It is something I never expected, and the last few weeks have been a very strange experience. It is exciting because we are at one of those rare points where the tide of events is turning, and the church nationally, including the Church of England has great opportunities to match its very great but often hidden strengths,” he continued.
Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, Bishop Welby spent eleven years working in the oil industry. By the late 80s, he had become an executive at Enterprise Oil Plc and was earning a six-figure salary. But in 1987, he decided to leave the corporate world and become an Anglican priest.
After receiving a degree in theology from Cranmer Hall in Durham, he served as a curate (assistant parish priest) at All Saints Chilvers Coton with St Mary the Virgin Astley, in Nuneaton from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he received his own parish, St. James, Southam, and in 1996 he was also given the neighboring parish of St. Michael and All Angels, Ufton.
In 2002, he became a Canon Residentiary at Coventry Cathedral and was extensively involved in reconciliation work in Africa and the Middle East. Much of his international work focused on Nigeria, where he attempted to diffuse the conflict in the Niger Delta.
Bishop Welby left the Diocese of Coventry in 2007 in order to become Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. During his time in Liverpool, he worked tirelessly to strengthen the cathedral’s ties to the local community.
Four years later, Bishop Welby was promoted to the Bishopric of Durham. Durham is one of the preeminent dioceses in the Church of England, and its bishop is automatically entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. Although Bishop Welby has been in Durham for less than a year, he gained recognition for his contributions in Parliament, and he was appointed to the Joint Select Commission on Banking Standards. In the church’s General Synod, he worked to prevent a schism over the admission of women to the episcopate.
Bishop Welby is commonly regarded as a member of the evangelical wing of the Church of England, which tends to stress traditional interpretation of the Bible. However, at a press conference held to announce his appointment, he lent his support to the ordination of female bishops. “I will be voting in favor and join my voice to many others in urging the Synod to go forward with this change,” he said.
As one might expect given his evangelical sympathies, Bishop Welby opposes the government’s plans to legalize gay marriage, calling it a complicated issue “and not one to be handled today, off the cuff.” At the same time, he has roundly condemned prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people.
“We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the Church,” he said. “I am always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us. Above all in the Church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love.”
Bishop Welby was chosen by the Crown Nominations Commission, a church body made up of bishops, clergy, and lay people. The selection process is highly secretive, and the commission’s deliberations are not made public. Ultimately, the commission presents two candidates to the Prime Minister, who then makes a formal recommendation to the Queen. Since 2007, Downing Street has always submitted the commission’s first choice to the monarch.
The process of installing Bishop Welby in office will be complex and arcane. Once the Archbishopric of Canterbury is vacant, the Queen will order the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral to elect a new archbishop. At the same time, she will also recommend that they elect Bishop Welby. By law, the Dean and Chapter must elect the Crown’s nominee. That election will then have to be confirmed by a commission of senior bishops appointed by the Queen. From that point on, Bishop Welby will legally be Archbishop of Canterbury.